A week to be wicked, p.25
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.25

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 25


  He waved the pistol at Colin. “Don’t . . . don’t . . . don’t you say those names again. ”

  “Well, it’s not like I can just forget them, is it?”

  The young man pushed to his feet. “You’ll forget them if I shoot you. ”

  “But then you’d be in a very bad situation. Once Grubb, Carmichael, and this boss of yours come back and find you’ve killed their valuable hostage?” Colin whistled low. “You’d not be long for this world then. ”

  The robber’s hands started to tremble. “I didn’t agree to this. I was just supposed to be lookout, while they done the robbing. ”

  “No,” Colin said smoothly. “Of course you wouldn’t agree to this. Kidnapping a peer of the realm? That’s not like you. ”

  “It’s not, is it? I only wanted a few bob to take my sweetheart to the fair. ”

  “Buy her a trinket, slide a hand under her skirts . . . ”

  “Exactly. ”

  Colin paused. “I’ll tell you what. These boots I’m wearing? They’ll fetch a tidy sum in any city. If you untie me, you can have them. Run off, make your money, take your sweetheart to the fair. When the law comes looking for Grubb and Carmichael—and mark my words, they will hang—you’ll be long gone. Forgotten. I don’t even know your name. ”

  The youth eyed him warily, slowly approaching. “I have a better idea. Mayhap I’ll just take your boots. And then I’ll leave you here. ”

  A sliver of fear pierced Colin in some vital artery. His composure bled from the wound in gasping spurts. Just the image of being left alone, tied to a tree . . . with night coming, eventually . . .

  He could have begged the man to shoot him dead.

  Instead, he closed his eyes.

  Stay calm. This was what you wanted. What you knew he’d do.

  Still holding the gun with one hand, the youth began tugging at Colin’s left boot with the other.

  “You’ll never get it off that way,” Colin said, forcing a nonchalant tone despite the sweat trickling down his back. “You may as well set aside the gun. There’s nothing I can do, trussed like this. ”

  After a few more moments of struggling, the robber swore and did as Colin suggested, setting the pistol to the side and wrestling the boot with both hands. At last, it slid free with a whooshing sound.

  Casting the first boot aside, he started to work on the other.

  “Slowly, now,” Colin joked. “Have a care for my aging joints. ”

  In actuality, he cared nothing for his joints. He was wagering everything on the hope of that small folding knife secreted in his right boot. If the thing slid free where he could see it . . . and if his captor didn’t notice it . . . and if he could somehow manage to get the knife into his hands . . . in a matter of minutes, he could cut himself free.

  But if any one of those things went wrong, he’d remain tied here. For only the Devil knew how long. Until night, most likely. Until the dark descended, thick with ominous rustling. Until thirst and hunger became animate demons, tasked with his ceaseless torment.

  Until the wild dogs came.

  Jesus. Please, God, no.

  His heartbeat thundered in his chest.

  As the youth lifted his leg and tugged on the boot, Colin flexed his leg muscle, pulling the boy close. He had to keep that knife within reach when it fell. If the thing went flying when the boot came off . . .

  “Easy,” he said through gritted teeth. He could feel the boot starting to give way.

  Crack. A faint snap in the undergrowth drew his attention.

  His captor didn’t notice the sound. He was too absorbed in his struggles with the boot. But Colin slid his gaze to the side, and what he saw there stalled his pounding heart.


  Minerva Highwood, in her governess-blue traveling gown, slowly emerging from the undergrowth. Creeping toward them with all the stealth of a cat, intent on grabbing the discarded pistol. She put a finger to her pursed lips, gesturing for Colin’s silence.

  Colin made his eyes wide. No, he mouthed. No. Go back.

  She crept closer still. Her foot snapped a branch.

  This time, the robber noticed. His head whipped up, swiveling toward Minerva.

  With a vicious growl, Colin gathered his strength and kicked him in the face. Scissoring his legs, Colin caught the man by the throat. He had him stunned and caught off guard. But he wouldn’t be able to hold him long.

  “Get the pistol,” he managed.

  As Minerva dove to retrieve the weapon, Colin tightened his legs about the highwayman’s neck.

  “I know what you’re thinking,” he said, his voice strained with effort. “You’re thinking that she’s just an innocent miss with spectacles. That she can’t possibly know how to fire that weapon. But you’re wrong. She’s had training. ” He raised his voice. “Min, show him. Shoot that birch tree over there. ”

  “I’m not firing at a tree! I’d waste my shot, and I haven’t more powder. Then what help would I be? Really, Colin. ”

  “See?” Colin said to the suffocating man. “She knows what she’s doing. ” He released the robber with one final half-strength kick to the jaw. “No sudden moves. ”

  Minerva focused her gaze and held the pistol steady. “Do I shoot him?”

  “No. No, there’s a knife in my right boot. Fetch it, kindly. ”

  Keeping the pistol trained on the robber at all times, she moved sideways until she could reach the boot. She found the knife with one hand and fumbled it open, wielding it like a dagger.

  “All right,” she said, glaring down at the highwayman. “So where do I stab him?”

  Stab him? Colin stared up at her, amazed. Her hair was hanging half loose, curling around her shoulders. Her eyes sparked with feral intensity. Her plump lips curled in a little snarl.

  He’d seen this wild, savage look on her face before. In Spindle Cove, he’d known her to fell a grown man with her rock-filled reticule, and once she’d even challenged Colin to a duel. She wore that look of righteous fury when she thought her sister was in danger, or one of her friends. Even Francine.

  But this was the first time she’d worn that look defending him.

  Amazing. She wasn’t supposed to be here. But here she was, for him. Willing to shoot or stab a man in his defense. And she was goddamned beautiful.

  “You don’t stab him, pet,” he said gently. “You use the knife to cut me loose. ”

  “Oh. Oh yes. ” A drunken laugh bubbled from her throat. “I suppose that makes more sense. ”

  Working one-handed, she couldn’t free him as quickly as he might like. But a few minutes’ sawing and hacking at the ropes, and she had him freed.

  Colin took the pistol from her the first instant he could, and promptly bashed it across the robber’s face, knocking him cold. He plucked the powder horn and spare lead shot from the man’s insensible form.

  He turned to Minerva. “Hurry. We must be gone before he wakes. ”

  “Oh, Colin. They hit you. ” She took a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at the bloodied corner of his mouth, wincing as she did.

  “It’s nothing. ”

  “What about our money?” she asked, looking around.

  “Gone with the other robbers. ”

  “Oh. At least I still have a sovereign. It’s sewn in the lining of my stays. ”

  “Well,” he muttered, cramming his left foot back into its boot. “Aren’t you resourceful. ”

  “You sound upset. ” She balled the handkerchief in her hand.

  “I am upset. ” He pushed to his feet and began walking in the direction from which she’d come. They needed to be gone, as soon as possible. “I can’t believe you’re even here. Minerva, I gave you specific instructions to ride on to the next town. Where you’d be safe. ”

  “I know. But I made Miss Gateshead let me out, a quarter mile down the road. I . . . ”
She grabbed for his wrist. “I couldn’t just leave you. ”

  He turned and stared at her.

  God, he didn’t know how to feel. Relieved to be free? Infuriated with her for flouting his commands? Overwhelmed with gratitude to see her whole and safe, and to have her here with him? The emotions seething within him were some mixture of all these.

  He knew one thing. He didn’t dare touch her right now. Whether he ended up shaking her senseless, clutching her mindlessly to him and sobbing into her skirts, or tupping her on the forest floor until his bollocks ran dry . . .

  She’d get hurt, one way or another. And that would make this whole damned ordeal for naught.

  “Wait. ” As they left the small clearing, she called him aside. “My trunk’s over here. I hid it under some branches. ”

  “You brought Francine?”

  So that’s why she’d made such a delayed appearance.

  “Well, I couldn’t leave her behind. ” She knelt on the forest floor and began clearing branches from atop her hidden trunk. “Not after what you’d done to save her. ”

  “After what I’d done to . . . to save Francine?” He crouched beside her, helping in the excavation. “You are an intelligent girl, Min. But sometimes you can be remarkably stupid. I wouldn’t give two fingernail shavings to save this miserable piece of plaster. Much less risk my life. ”

  “But the five hundred guineas. ”

  “Believe me, you couldn’t pay me five thousand guineas to sit roped to a tree like that. I would never have left with those highwaymen if you hadn’t forced me to do it. ”

  “Forced you?” Her tone jumped an octave. “I didn’t force you. I could have throttled you myself when you volunteered. I was so frightened. ”

  “Well, it was either volunteer or watch you be murdered. You’d have risked everything to save this wretched lizard, if I hadn’t intervened. And you’d have ended up dead. Or worse. ”

  “So you did it for me?”

  “Minerva. ” He started to reach for her, then thought better of it. He gestured impatiently instead. “You left me no choice. ”

  “I’m sorry. ” She touched a hand to her hair. “I’m sorry to have put you in that position. It’s just . . . my life’s work is in this trunk. It’s my one chance at gaining recognition from my peers, my one chance at success. I’ve already risked so much for it. When that highwayman tried to take it, I didn’t think, I just . . . reacted. ” Sniffing, she looked up at him. “Can you understand?”

  “Oh, certainly. I understand. What’s in this trunk is your life’s work, and I’m just the useless fellow traveling with you this week. Of course, Francine’s safety comes first. ”

  “No. ” She shook her head so hard, her spectacles went crooked. “That’s not fair. You’re twisting my words. Colin, listen. In that frantic moment in the carriage, yes—I might have risked my own life to save this trunk. But you must believe me when I tell you this. I did not mean to risk yours. That’s why I came back. ”

  He nodded slowly. Hard to argue further, when she put it that way.

  Truly, what could he say? Admit that he’d been harboring some absurd male fantasy of her running through the woods to save him, hair flowing loose behind her, breasts heaving with every pace . . . aided by helpful songbirds chirping directions . . . simply because she’d known in her heart that he needed her help? Because the moment the Gatesheads’ carriage had rolled away, she’d realized that science meant nothing—absolutely nothing—to her without him, and now she would fall at his feet and beg to be his sultry-lipped love slave forevermore?

  No. Of course not. She’d come back because it was expedient to her goals, and the decent thing to do. She was both driven and loyal, as ever. Nothing between them had changed.
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